Some Fundamentals

Philosophy

Street Photography is about urban exploring, wandering with a purpose. Lots of walking. Capturing people and places in a city, going about their business. Doing it on a regular basis is a must. Getting out the front door, onto a train every weekend. Going to the same places and seeing something differently, and sometimes finding new places.

For me, street photography is about people for the majority of the time, and sometimes a place. Normally, my images include people. Street photography is about getting amongst people – in busy places, to see something special.

Courage is the most important contributor to success. Over the coming weeks you will need to build your confidence in pointing a camera at people. There are some techniques and tricks that can help, but at the end of the day, you need to be hold up your camera and shoot. 99% of the time things will be fine. The other 1% is normally not a major issue either.

Getting out and walking the streets is a great way to understand the people that live in a city. When I have been lucky enough to travel, I would rather spend a week photographing the city pavements than spending time on a tour. I still get to the major attractions, but photograph them in a way that helps illustrate the nature of the city.

Sounds a little pretentious? Yep, but I am not quite sure how to express it otherwise.

To start with, focus on covering ground. When you get home, you can review your images, and begin to identify locations you want to go back to.

If you are using a digital, try not to be constantly checking the images in your LCD. Use the viewfinder if you have one, rather than the live view. It will help you focus on composition, and start to develop your “eye”.

The most important thing is to capture what is commonly known as “the decisive moment”, coined by the father of street photography, Henri Cartier Bresson. For now, it is enough to understand that nothing is static in a street scene. People are coming and going. They are sometimes coming together, sometimes they are moving apart.

The perfect composition may only exist for a split second. The moment the cyclist enters a spot of light in the street. A waitress taking an order from a customer. A couple embracing. A father and son both looking left and right to cross the road. Nothing is staged. If you are not ready with your camera, the momentary opportunity will pass you by.

As your skill develops, you will start to develop a “third eye” which can see photo opportunities before they happen. If you can recognise these in advance, you can camp in the right spot and wait for the photo to compose itself.

Getting Started by Getting Out and Walking

The first step is to get out. Grab the camera you have and get out of the house. Travel into the hub of your city. Take 50 shots. Don’t worry much about anything, just get used to pointing and shooting. Make sure you cover at least a few kilometers, and keep moving. Experience your city as freshly as you can.

Get onto Google Maps and plan your route to make it at least 3km. Wear your favourite, most comfortable shoes or sneakers, jeans, and a jacket if it is a bit chilly. Remember you have to have gear you are OK to walk in, but at the same time fit in with the general population. Wear nondescript clothes that blend in.

Just point your camera at anything that you find interesting. It doesn’t really matter what you shoot this week. Use the time to work out what you know about your camera. Smashing out 50+ shots will sort this out. Spend some time on the internet filling in the gaps in your knowledge. Understand aperture, shutter speeds, and ISO. They all work together to produce different images – yes, you can set some of them to auto, but understanding the relationship between the three will help you develop.

If you have a DSLR, just take one lens, and keep the bag as small as you can. The bigger and heavier your bag, the more likely you are to give it up too early in the day. You need one camera, one lens. Don’t be the person who is struggling under the weight of a hulking backpack, chock full with every piece of gear you own. This is no fun. Take the challenge to pack light.

I often take a full size body – a 35mm SLR or rangefinder, or maybe a medium format, and then a second compact camera. Digital or film for either part of the combo doesn’t really matter. If I get creatively stuck with the main full size body, switching for half an hour to the compact can freshen things up.

Make sure you have a memory card that is way too big – or a few extra rolls of film, if you are that way inclined. And a spare battery. Be prepared for something big. An supersized card and a spare battery will be your saviour on the one day when something spectacular presents itself. Maybe once a year, something cool will come your way, and if you don’t have a bit of spare capacity…

Look up city websites and find out if there are any festivals or other things on that attract groups of people. There is always something interesting to photograph where large groups of people congregate.

Gear You Need

Notebook. You should be making notes. More on this later. Match this with a quality pen or pencil.

Camera. Almost any camera or even a decent smartphone will get you started. Match this with a very comfortable strap that will last for the long haul.

Bag.

Comfortable shoes.

Photojournal

Photographers are the kind of people who like to journal. Writing things down changes your relationship with the information. It makes it stick, helps you think things through, and is always available to refer back to. There is no need to back it up, get new software, or worry about someone stealing it from the back seat of your car.

A great notebook is a must for a photographer who is serious about learning. What kind of stuff do I write and record in mine?

  • Locations to visit sometime soon
  • Ideas for specific compositions
  • Summary of things I learn from others, the internet, or books on photography
  • Simple photocopies or laser prints of photos that I love, and then my notes on deconstructing them to understand what makes them great
  • Specific learning projects
  • Plans for each day made prior to leaving the house. The location, how to get there, what to look for, and notes on what technique etc I am going to focus on during the shoot.
  • I often take a few moments regularly during a shoot to write down my thoughts on how things are going. An instant feedback loop is helpful whilst out in the field.
  • Post shoot review – comparing what I wanted to achieve vs actuals. I often include simple BW lasers of the the image and mark up notes to help me along the learning curve.
  • Anything else that pops into my head that needs to be written down.

Looking back through previous notebooks can be a great source of inspiration – revisiting old and forgotten ideas, recalling different techniques you have spent time working on, and seeing your personal growth through the pages of the notebook.

Before each exercise, write down the key objectives in your notebook, along with any other information you might need out in the field. Photocopy and tape key information like reference maps and a location list into your notebook. Analogue paper and pen is still more fun than the dinky flashing lights of a smart phone. During the shoot, write some notes on what you are learning, and what is still outstanding for the session.

Writing down intentions and learnings has a dual effect :

  • I tend to remember things I write down much better.
  • Writing down your goals for the day help me commit to the exercise better mentally.

Anyway, give it a try. As a journal starter for each shoot…

1. Summarise what you are going to – what are you going to shoot, where, what techniques.

2. Stop once or twice during the shoot and write some notes checking how things are going.

3. When you get your photos, write some notes on what worked and what didn’t. Print out the ones that tell a clear story on what you got right or wrong, and stick them in your notebook, along with the notes.

4. Summarize what you learnt.

5. Flick through it when you are on the train into the city.

A great notebook and pen / pencil will help motivate you to keep up the habit. Stationary should demand to be used, and it is an affordable luxury for most. Give my personal favourites a try…

Moleskine Notebooks are my faves for general use. I also use their A4 folders and paper inserts for more detailed home learning sessions.

Field Notes make a soft cover pocket notebook. I got onto this format using the free notebooks from the Mondrian Hotel in Soho. Perfect for temporary notes out in the field – a replacement for what you might normally wirte on a scrap of paper. Not really suitable for long term notes though.

Writing with either a 4B pencil – the softness of the 4B makes contact between lead and paper a pleasurable and pleasing experience! 4B pencils leave a nice dark mark on most paper types – more than an HB.

When it comes to pens, I get a bit extravagant with Artline Drawing System Pens in a 0.8mm point.

Enough to get anyone motivated.

Assignment – Basics

Get out the front door and point a camera at some street scenes. Catch public transport into your city. Jump on google maps and measure out a trail that is at least 2km and walk it.

If you are shooting film, plan to take at least 3 rolls. Digital – 100 shots.

If you are shooting digital, try not to keep checking your LCD after each shot. There is a good reason for this, which will reveal itself more later. Wait until you take a break to write some notes in your photojournal and review them critically at that point.

Just take photos of anything you see that is interesting. Don’t get stuck anywhere – keep constantly moving. We’ll spend some time working on specific composition techniques later on.

When you return home and have your photographs, take them down to the nearest Officeworks and get them printed out. 10c a copy… you gotta be able to invest in your art! Or print them at work on the laser printer. Pick 10 ones you like and 5 that you don’t. Cut them out and paste them in your journal one at a time, and add some notes on why you selected the image – liking or loathing! Make some notes on what locations you would visit again.

Look up some street photography online. Just google image search “Street Photography” or you can even click here if you are lazy at an elite level! Compare your very first images against what you see. Pick four or five, print them out and put them in your journal along with some notes on why you selected them. This will get you started the next time you go out.

Write down some notes to remind yourself of a few things prior to the next time you go out.

Was there anything you realised you didn’t quite understand on your camera whilst out?

Were there any shots that didn’t turn out because you had the wrong settings dialed up on your camera?

What were the common factors to remember from what you did OK and not so OK at?

What spots would you like to revisit? Now you have thought about it, was there a shot that you didn’t take that you wish you had’ve?

Did you have comfortable shoes, bag, and clothes on? Was there anything different you would take next time?

What were the light conditions like? Dark, light, overcast, rainy?

Read these notes again on the train on your way into your second shoot.

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  1. The Value of a Notebook | Melbourne Street Photography - August 2, 2014

    […] There is some more information around keeping notes at this post. […]

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